Top Scientists of All Time

Science degree majors unite - here you will find a list of the top scientists of all time. From Marie Curie to Thomas Edison, this list is your go-to guide on science research and understanding top contributors to modern-day science.

The origins of science can be traced through the many texts which survived the Classical Age as early as 300 A.D. Investigations into the natural world can be traced back to Ancient Greece through the writings of those such as Aristotle and Thales. Scientific methods were used in the Middle Ages by scientists like Roger Bacon. Modern science is traced to the period of the 16th and 17th century during the Scientific Revolution - which centered in Europe. On that foundation, many great scientists have applied, invented, discovered and created the modern world as we know it.

Anders Celsius

Anders Celsius, born in 1701 in Uppsala, Sweden, was a professor of astronomy. He is best known for the Celsius thermometer which is still used today, however, it is different than the original. The original Celsius thermometer listed 100 degrees as the melting/freezing temperature of water, and zero degrees as the boiling point of water. Shortly after his death it was reversed to the way it is today, with freezing at the low end and boiling at the high. Celsius also is considered to be the first scientist to connect the northern lights, the aurora borealis, to magnetism. He was just over 40 years old when he died of tuberculosis.

Marie Curie

The chemist and physicist, Marie Curie, lived from 1867 to 1934. After leaving Warsaw, Poland, she moved to Paris to receive her education. She is most famous for her pioneering work with radioactivity, for which she coined the term. Curie also started the first studies in using radioactive isotopes to treat cancer. The first woman professor at the University of Paris, she was awarded two Nobel Prizes, one in physics and one in chemistry. She founded the Curie Institutes in Warsaw and Paris. She died on July 4, 1934, from leukemia, and continues to be linked to contributions to modern-day science today.

Rudolf Diesel

Rudolf Diesel was born in Paris on March 18, 1858. He worked as a refrigerator engineer, but all the while was working on inventing what is now known today as the diesel engine. He received a patent on the engine in 1893, but worked for years afterward to perfect it. Ironically, from today's perspective, his goal was efficiency. Shortly after perfecting his engine in 1897, diesel became a wealthy man when it was quickly used to power not just automobiles, but factories and plants. Diesel died mysteriously in 1913, while going overboard from a steamer.

  • Rudolf Diesel: Discusses Diesel’s first engine, his humanitarian vision and the effect DuPont, Mellon, and Hearst had on his work
  • Invention Dimension: Provides a short biography on Rudolph Diesel and his work with the diesel engine
  • His Name is an Engine: December 1940 TIME magazine article about Rudolph Diesel

Edwin Laurentine Drake

Edwin Laurentine Drake, or Colonel Drake, was born in New York, in 1819. In his early years, he worked on railroads. After leaving the railroad due to illness, Drake was commissioned to investigate the possibility of obtaining oil in such a way as to make it profitable to replace the dwindling supply of whale oil for lamps. After many unsuccessful attempts, on August 27, 1859, he drilled a little more than 69 feet and hit oil. This went down in history as the first oil well to be drilled. Colonel Drake did not profit substantially from this great feat. He became a drifter and lived in poverty, dying on November 8, 1880.

Thomas Alva Edison

Thomas Alva Edison, born in Milan, Ohio, on February 11, 1847, became one of the most successful inventors of all time. His inventions are part of everyday life for millions. Considered too inquisitive, Edison didn't do well in school, although he always had an inquisitive mind. While working selling candy and newspapers on the train, he set up a chemistry lab and a printing press in the baggage car. As a result, he began to publish the first newspaper on a train. He then worked for Western Union. In 1876, Edison opened a laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, where he continued to work on all his inventions. He eventually took out almost 1,100 patents. Some of his best known inventions are the light bulb, the motion picture camera and the phonograph. He died in 1931 as a result of diabetes.

  • Thomas Alva Edison: All about Edison--his biography, a gallery and his quotes
  • Edison’s Page: An Edison biography and time-line Also includes articles on Edison, sound recordings, and film
  • The Thomas Edison: An Edison biography, bibliography and chronology. Information about his inventions and patents

Albert Einstein

Born in Ulm, Germany, on March 14, 1879, Albert Einstein became a theoretical physicist, who developed the Theory of Relativity. Considered one of the world's most influential scientists and the father of modern physics, in 1921, Einstein was honored for his work in physics with the Nobel Prize. Einstein originally had aspirations to become a teacher after getting his degree. He instead became an assistant examiner in a patent office. This was followed by many jobs as he dedicated himself to physics. He established himself as a superb professor and became a visiting scholar at many institutions around the world. In 1933, he accepted a job at New Jersey's Institute for Advanced Study, where he worked for the rest of his life as a theoretical physicist. He died of a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm at the age of 76.

  • Albert Einstein: An Einstein biography and bibliography. Discusses his life’s work, honors he was awarded, and additional information
  • Einstein Archives: Offers digitized manuscripts, gallery and archival database
  • Einstein’s Revolution: Discusses, in depth, Einstein's works, vision, life and times

Michael Faraday

Born in London, Michael Faraday lived from 1791 to 1867. Mostly self-educated, he was an apprentice to George Riebau, a bookseller and book binder. Fueled by the book, The Improvement of the Mind by Isaac Watts, he changed his life and developed an interest in science and electricity. He became secretary to Humphrey Davy, the chemist and then Royal Institution of Chemistry. Faraday made many contributions to science, including the law of electro-chemical decomposition, diamagnetism and the magnetization of light, as well as the discovery of magneto-electric induction. He was very active in what we today call environmental science, especially air pollution. Faraday turned down many honors, including a knighthood and burial in Westminster Abby. He died on August 25, 1867.

James Prescott Joule

Physicist James Prescott Joule, was born in England, on December 24, 1818. His science began as a hobby while he worked at his father's brewery. With a fascination for electricity, he soon began to research in earnest. His first published scientific papers appeared in 1838 in the Annals of Electricity. In 1840, he discovered what became known as Joule's Law. The International System of Units derived unit of measurement bears his name. Joule worked on the absolute scale of temperature with Lord Kelvin. He died in October of 1889.

  • Physics 212: Joule's biography, paddle wheel experiments, and bibliography. Information on the Joule-Thomson Effect and Joule's Law
  • Joule, James Prescott: A short biography of Thomson, including information about his work with Joule. A link to further reading on Joule

Lewis Howard Latimer

Born in 1948, to parents determined to see their children free from slavery, Lewis Howard Latimer became first a draftsman and then a prolific inventor. The time immediately following the Civil War was great time for scientific and technological advances, and Latimer was a part of it. He worked with Alexander Graham Bell, for whom he drew up the plans for the telephone, so it could be submitted for patent. He invented a carbon filament that made electric lights last longer and set up a light bulb factory in London. Among his many patents, were those for the arc lamp and an Apparatus for Cooling and Disinfecting. Latimer also worked for Thomas Edison, showing him the ropes of filing patents and as his patent investigator. In 1925, his Poems of Love and Life was published. He died on December 11, 1928.

  • Innovative Lives: Biography of Latimer, his life, and work. Includes two poems by Latimer
  • Lewis H. Latimer: A Latimer timeline, information about his society, and the works it is doing for today’s youth
  • Then and Now: Maps Latimer’s life and work including pictures of Latimer and his home

Lisa Meitner

Lisa Meitner, a Viennese physicist, is known as the reluctant mother of the atom bomb. In the early 1900s women weren’t allowed to work in laboratories, so Meitner, with her partner Otto Hahn, created their own lab where she would work when she was on leave from her military duties. While working in the lab, she and her partner discovered a new element they named protactinium. Sixteen years after their discovery, while bombarding heavy elements with fast neutrons, Meitner realized just how much energy was released when barium fissioned into uranium. Being a Jewish woman, in Germany at the time, she fled to Copenhagen and finally to Sweden. In 1939, she wrote a paper explaining the process of nuclear fission energy. She had no intentions of her work resulting in bombs, but, her paper encouraged warring nations to launch bomb-making experiments. She was appalled to learn the repercussions of her work in the making of the atom bomb.

George Simon Ohm

The German physicist, Georg Simon Ohm, lived from 1789 to 1854. He first worked as a mathematics teacher, where he began teaching physics. At the Jesuit Gymnasium of Cologne, he did experimental work in the physics lab. He worked out what became known as Ohm's Law and wrote a book on his complete theory of electricity. He also did research in physiological acoustics. When he became curator of the physical cabinet at the Bavarian Academy in 1849, Ohm started to lecture at the University of Munich. He eventually was named to the Chair of Physics at the University shortly before his death.

Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla was born on July 10, 1856, in modern day Croatia. He became one of the world's most important figures in the field of electricity. Not only an inventor, Tesla also worked as an electrical and mechanical engineer. Best known for his contributions to electromagnetism, he obtained many patents and did extensive theoretical work in what we today call AC or, alternating electrical current. His work in this field contributed to the beginnings of the Second Industrial Revolution. Tesla also did important work in other scientific fields like nuclear physics, radar, and robotics. Despite his many patents, he died destitute on January 7, 1943.

  • 153 Years: The Nikola Tesla Museum offers exhibitions, collections, archives and a library of Tesla's work
  • Nikola Tesla: Discusses Tesla’s work with electricity, Edison and Westinghouse
  • Master of Lightning: The life and legacy of Tesla and his work inside the lab

William Thomson (Kelvin)

One of the foremost scientists of his time, Sir William Thomson Baron Kelvin was born in Belfast in 1824. He went on to become a Professor of Natural Philosophy at 22 years of age and would continue to teach over 7,000 students in his 53 years as professor. He established a school of electrical engineering and was known for his inventions, the most important being the temperature scale known as the Kelvin Scale. He would also become famous for his research in the fields of mechanical heat and energy. Besides the Kelvin Scale he was equally know for his pioneering work on the Trans-Atlantic telegraph cable, his Kelvin Compass, and his sounding machines.

Count Alessandro Volta

Considered a pioneer of electrochemistry, Count Alessandro Volta, born February 18, 1745, became enthralled with electricity at an early age. By 1775, Volta invented the electrophorus. With this invention, Volta’s fame spread and in 1778, he became the first to isolate methane compound, which was a constituent to natural gas. Through the next years he would continue to study electricity and created other small inventions involving static electricity. The major accomplishment that defined his life’s work was the electric current. Controversy would follow with many others trying to figure out how to use this discovery. It was in 1800 when Volta won the battle by building a device that produced a massive flow of electricity, it was known as the electric battery. He received many awards and medals for his work, and was called, by Napoleon himself, to France for exhibition of his discoveries.

  • Count Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Volta: Discusses his work with Electrochemistry and his life
  • Volta: Information on Volta’s life and work including an excerpt from his journal and an illustration of his Voltaic
  • Physics History: Provides a discussion and timeline of Volta’s work on the electric pile

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